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maalula nunsAbout a dozen nuns held in Syria for more than three months have been released and are on their way to Damascus via Lebanon, a Lebanese security source and church officials said on Sunday.

The security source said the nuns had been transferred to the Lebanese town of Arsal earlier in the week and were on their way to Syria on Sunday.

The nuns went missing in December after Islamist fighters took the ancient quarter of the Christian town of Maaloula north of Damascus.

After being held in the Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Thecla in Maaloula, they were reportedly moved to the town of Yabroud, about 20 km (13 miles) to the north, which is now the focus of a government military operation.

Speaking to reporters at the border, Syrian Greek Orthodox Bishop Louka al-Khoury welcomed the news. “What the Syrian army achieved in Yabroud facilitated this process,” he said.

It was unclear exactly who had held the nuns and why they had been released now.

In December, the nuns showed up in a video obtained by Al Jazeera television, saying they were in good health, but it was not clear who filmed the video, where it was made or under what conditions.

Syria’s Christian community has broadly tried to stay on the sidelines of the country’s three-year-old-conflict, which has killed over 140,000 and become increasingly sectarian.

But the rise of hardline Islamists among the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim opposition has alarmed many.

Reuters

Update:

The release of the abducted nuns was delayed for several hours on Sunday over “logistical” obstacles surfaced in the final stages of a swap deal.

Lebanese General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim confirmed that the nuns will be released “on Sunday night” after the process was “delayed by logistical obstacles related to the region’s geography.”

“There are some obstacles but the process of releasing the Maalula nuns has not stopped,” he told LBCI television.

And in remarks to OTV, the general said “there’s no need to worry or be pessimistic and the negotiations are ongoing and will not break down.”

Meanwhile, Qatar’s charges d’affaires in Beirut Ali al-Maliki confirmed to Al-Jazeera TV that the nuns will be released but noted that the issue “will take some time and maybe hours.”

LBCI reported that after having left the outskirts of the Bekaa border town of Arsal, a Lebanese General Security delegation returned to the town to prepare for receiving the nuns.

“The General Security convoy has returned to the Aqabat al-Jurd area in Arsal,” MTV said.

Earlier, Lebanon’s National News Agency said a large convoy consisting of around 30 vehicles had arrived in the al-Rahweh area in Arsal’s outskirts to receive the nuns.

It later reported that “a new convoy consisting of 3 cars has crossed the army checkpoint at Arsal’s entrance and headed to the point where the first convoy is waiting to pick up the Maalula nuns.”

NNA had reported that Qatar’s intelligence chief and a Lebanese General Security team crossed into Syria from Arsal to receive the nuns.

“Qatari intelligence chief Ghanim al-Kubaisi and a General Security delegation have crossed from Arsal towards the Syrian border ahead of the release of the Maalula nuns,” NNA said.

Meanwhile, local and regional TV networks aired footage showing heavy presence by General Security agents and reporters at the al-Masnaa border crossing between Lebanon and Syria.

A number of Christian and Muslim clergymen were also spotted in the border area of Jdeidet Yabous.

MTV said it was not clear yet whether the nuns’ convoy would take the Yabrud-Arsal-Masnaa route or the road from Yabrud towards Syria’s al-Zabadani and Damascus ahead of traveling towards al-Masnaa.

Earlier, Maj. Gen. Ibrahim told al-Manar television that “the decision to release the Maalula nuns has been taken but that will take some time due to logistical obstacles.”

Sky News Arabia said the deal involves the release of 153 detainees from the prisons of the Syrian regime. Other reports said a number of women prisoners will be freed.

“A number of Syrian women prisoners have arrived at a location facing Jdeidet Yabous on the Lebanese border and they will enter Lebanon,” Al-Jazeera reported.

Qatar’s intelligence chief al-Kubaisi had arrived in Lebanon from Istanbul in order to follow up on the case, said NNA.

Head of the Mar Yaacoub monastery in Syria, Sister Agnes, told VOL that the Syrian Information Ministry had requested that journalists head to the Lebanese-Syrian border “because a surprise awaits them there.”

Update 2

Finally the abducted nuns were released on Sunday evening and handed over to a Lebanese General Security delegation in the outskirts of the Bekaa border town of Arsal.

“The Maalula nuns have been freed and they are now in our custody,” General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim told LBCI television.

Lebanon’s National News Agency also confirmed that “the Maalula nuns have become in the custody of Lebanese General Security.”

“The General Security convoy that is carrying the freed Maalula nuns has left Arsal towards the international highway that leads to the al-Masnaa border crossing” between Lebanon and Syria, NNA said.

Ibrahim later appeared at the Syrian border post of Jdeidet Yabous where the nuns were supposed to arrive.

“The nuns will arrive here in an hour,” he told reporters.

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